Plomer, William (Charles Franklyn)

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PLOMER, William (Charles Franklyn)

Nationality: South African. Born: Pietersburg, Transvaal, 10 December 1903. Education: Spondon House School; Beechmont, Sevenoaks, Kent; Rugby School, Warwickshire; St. John's College, Johannesburg. Military Service: Served in the Royal Navy Intelligence Division, 1940-45. Career: Farmer in South Africa, early 1920s; founding editor, with Roy Campbell, Voorslag (Whip-lash), Durban, 1926; teacher in Japan, 1926-29; moved to England, 1929; fiction reviewer, Spectator, London, 1933-38; literary adviser, Jonathan Cape, publishers, London, 1937-73; lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1956; president, Poetry Society, 1968-71; president, Kilvert Society, 1968-73. Awards: Queen's gold medal for poetry, 1963; Whitbread award, 1973. D.Litt.: University Of Durham, 1958. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1951. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1968. Died: 21 September 1973.



Electric Delights (selections), edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. 1978.

Selected Stories, edited by Stephen Gray. 1984.

Short Stories

I Speak for Africa. 1927.

Paper Houses. 1929.

The Child of Queen Victoria and Other Stories. 1933.

Curious Relations, with Anthony Butts. 1945.

Four Countries. 1949.


Turbott Wolfe. 1926.

Sado. 1931; as They Never Came Back, 1932.

The Case Is Altered. 1932.

The Invaders. 1934.

Museum Pieces. 1952.

Plays (opera librettos, music by Benjamin Britten)

Gloriana (produced 1953). 1953.

Curlew River: A Parable, from a play by Juro Motomasa (produced 1964). 1964.

The Burning Fiery Furnace (produced 1966). 1966.

The Prodigal Son (produced 1968). 1968.


Notes for Poems. 1927.

The Family Tree. 1929.

The Fivefold Screen. 1932.

Visiting the Caves. 1936.

Selected Poems. 1940.

The Dorking Thigh and Other Satires. 1945.

A Shot in the Park. 1955; as Borderline Ballads, 1955.

Collected Poems. 1960; revised edition, 1973.

A Choice of Ballads. 1960.

Taste and Remember. 1966.

Celebrations. 1972.


Cecil Rhodes. 1933.

Ali the Lion: Ali of Tebeleni, Pasha of Jannina 1741-1822. 1936; as The Diamond of Jannina: Ali Pasha 1741-1822, 1970.

Double Lives: An Autobiography. 1943.

At Home: Memoirs. 1958.

Conversation with My Younger Self. 1963.

The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast (for children). 1973.

The Autobiography (revised versions of Double Lives and At Home). 1975.

Editor, Japanese Lady in Europe, by Haruko Ichikawa. 1937.

Editor, Kilvert's Diary 1870-1879. 3 vols., 1938-40; abridged edition, 1944; revised edition, 3 vols., 1960.

Editor, Selected Poems of Herman Melville. 1943.

Editor, with Anthony Thwaite and Hilary Corke, New Poems 1961: A P.E.N. Anthology. 1961.

Editor, A Message in Code: The Diary of Richard Rumbold 1932-1960. 1964.

Editor, Burn These Letters: Alice Lemon to Winifred Nicol 1959-1962. 1973.

Translator, with Jack Cope, Selected Poems of Ingrid Jonker. 1968.


Critical Studies:

Plomer by John R. Doyle, 1969; Plomer: A Biography by Peter Alexander, 1989; "A Literary Ghost: William Plomer's Proposed Biographical Account of E. M. Forster" by A. D. Burnett, in Review of English Studies, February 1996, pp. 53-58.

* * *

The stories of William Plomer are set in four countries—South Africa, Japan, Greece, and England—providing both a framework and an indication of the chief characteristic of his writings, that they are the product of a man frequently transplanted from one country to another. As a result his stories tend to focus on the restless and rootless, misfits and outcasts, and to explore cultural conflicts. His most important stories are those of his birthplace, for in his South African fictions Plomer founded the two dominant "schools" of subsequent South African writing: that of relationships across the color bar, as shown in his pioneering novel Turbott Wolfe and the story "The Child of Queen Victoria" (1933); and that of the black migrant who comes to the white man's city in search of work, as in "Ula Masondo" (1927). Apart from the two major—and lengthy—stories, Plomer also wrote a number of lesser fictional responses to the South African racial situation; he was the first writer to tackle the subject in a radical and uncompromising way. This made him a controversial figure even as a very young man, and his first book of short stories, I Speak for Africa, enraged many whites for the critical treatment they received and his sympathetic treatment of blacks, presented as fully human in the stories and in Turbott Wolfe for the first time (astonishingly) in South African literature.

"Black Peril," even in its title confronting a deep-seated white fear, is one of the most disturbing and hence memorable of these stories, adopting a flashback technique by which Vera Corneliussen reviews her life during the delirium before her death, her memories flooding back in an approximation of her "stream of consciousness." It emerges that the newspaper version of her death "of shock" is false: this is no case of vicious black man raping virtuous white woman, for the sexual consummation of her relationship with Charlie, her black servant, is revealed as something Vera has herself desired and made inevitable. Similarly shocking and savage but less mature is "Portraits in the Nude"—which culminates in the brutal beating of a black farm worker—with its sharp and even vitriolic depictions of his white countrymen (and women, apart from Lily du Toit, who stops the torturing of Shilling and has him laid on her bed) and of the stifling constrictions with which they surround themselves, but also with the evocative natural descriptions of South Africa at which Plomer excelled. In some later stories some white South Africans escape Plomer's castigation: for example, in "When the Sardines Came," which celebrates an event that breaks down the usual barriers of race, Reymond has a good name among the black people for treating them "with fairness and even kindness"; and in "Down on the Farm" Tom Stevens finds that his "coloured" servant, Willem Plaatjes, means "everything" to him (more typical is Stevens's racist neighbor, the odious Kimball).

In the fictions of Japan, black versus white gives way to East versus West, and it is perhaps inevitable that most of the stories in Paper Houses share an interest in suicide, that source of fascination to the occidental mind, particularly in its ritual oriental forms. The most thoughtful treatment is in "Nakamura," with its ironic twist at the end—a fatal accident takes over from an abandoned plan of suicide and murder. More typical is the satirical treatment, in connection with emperor-worship, in "The Portrait of an Emperor," in which a lost photograph leads to the consumption of rat-poison. But in Japan, as in South Africa, Plomer's main significance is as a pioneer, writing about his Japanese characters without exoticism or condescension. The displaced person is again a focus of interest, notably the uprooted rural Japanese in the city, as in "A Piece of Good Luck," perhaps the most sensitive of these stories. Cumulatively the stories reveal insights into many facets of Japanese life, including the subjection of women, the rise of militarism, and what he saw as the Japanese split personality, summed up in the title "A Brutal Sentimentalist."

Greece for Plomer was the land of love, which also provides material for his last analyses of the clash of cultures and particularly of the impingement on the natural primitivism of the Greeks by what he described as "individuals from ostensibly more sophisticated levels of civilization." These characters appear ludicrous by comparison to the Greeks: the caricature American, Fletcher B. Raper, contrasted with gentle blind beggars, Nikos and Timos, in "The Crisis"; or the coxcombical and insincere Napoleon Emmanuelides contrasted with the attractive young boatman, Spiros, whose lost sister gives the title to "Nausicaa." The Homeric name is apt for a story set in Corfu, description of which distorts the narrative structure; it is better subsumed into "The Island," a reverie of male friendship, with a suppressed homosexual element that is another of Plomer's characteristics.

After such studies of fundamental conflicts in three continents, with what critics have described as "uncanny" insights into the "foreigners" among whom Plomer found himself living, there is a descent into the English stories and their concerns with more superficial matters and especially with what Plomer called "the comedy of class distinctions." There is some harmless fun and pleasant, if often puerile, humor in these trivial stories, as well as some less attractive snide chortles at the seamier side of sex, but none seem to rise above superficiality and ephemerality. Sean O'Faolain thought the English stories in Four Countries "all flops" compared with the successes from the earlier countries, and it is to those successes that attention is most fruitfully paid. In them Plomer gave lasting expression to new perceptions of human experience, thereby fulfilling his own definition of the artist's function: "To add new forms to life, to show life in a new light, to perceive and illuminate some small part of the universal design."

—Michael Herbert

See the essays on "The Child of Queen Victoria" and "Ula Masondo."